The Genuine Article
A Dark and Scary Place
Dirk Maggs is no stranger to radio, possessing a prolific background of quality audio dramatisations - or Audio Movies, as he prefers to call them. He has experience of writing and script adaptations, producing and directing. The high-tech mixing of radio full-cast dramas was pioneered by Dirk. Previous projects created for radio include two Superman, two Batman and two Judge Dredd serials, The Amazing Spider-Man, An American Werewolf in London, Independence Day: UK, Stephen Baxter's Voyage, Agatha Christie, The Gemini Apes (see my Apes piece for a more detailed description of Dirk's earlier work), and even Peter Pan.
I spoke to Dirk about his new adaptations for radio of the Douglas Adams Hitchhiker books 'Life, The Universe & Everything'; 'So Long And Thanks For All The Fish'; and 'Mostly Harmless'. This is one occasion when I'm sure we all wish that things don't go off without a hitch!
Ty Power: Hello Dirk, how has it been, busy?
Dirk Maggs: Yes, very. In between HHGG I've had to do other jobs as well. It's the usual thing of running as fast as you can to stay in one place.
TP: With your brave attempt to bring Star Trek to radio collapsing due to actor
difficulties, and being unable to take on the Jon Pertwee Doctor Who plays due
to other commitments, you could call this third time lucky at bringing a big SF
series to the airwaves?
DM: Yes, kind of. But in fact in 1993 Douglas Adams approached the BBC about a new series of Hitchhiker's and asked if I was available to do it. Douglas had heard of me from The Adventures of Superman for Radio 4. The Star Trek attempt actually came off the back of the failure of HHGG. We had a writer on HHGG who was selected for the project by neither Douglas nor myself. He was a very good writer but didn't get what Douglas wanted at all, so Douglas said that he would write it himself if only he had the time. I suggested that I could adapt it and Douglas could edit me, and he liked that idea because he wouldn't have to write it all over again. We were going to go ahead, but so much time had passed; even though we had pre-booked studio time and approached the cast for availability, it just died on the vine really.
TP: So this all happened before the comic book adaptations?
DM: Well I'd already done one lot, the Docudramas (Superman On Trial, Batman: The Lazarus Syndrome) and the early Adventures Of Superman for Radio 4. But there'd been a gap and now I gratefully went back to comic books with Superman - Doomsday & Beyond (Superman Lives! in the USA) and of course Batman: Knightfall. Sadly, that's when the Doctor Who projects came up - I couldn't do them because I was doing more Superman and Batman. It was a real shame because I'd just worked with Jon Pertwee and we'd got on really well. Jon was up for me doing it, so we were both disappointed, but I had other irons in the fire. Phil Clarke did a good job in the end.
TP: I believe there were two previous attempts to raise HHGG for radio again?
DM: The first was in 1993 when Douglas wanted me to produce. I don't know if there were any others in-between, not involving me. The next time was in 1997 when Douglas invited me to go to the Digital Village company to talk about possible projects. So I went there to talk to him and his partner Robbie Stamp about an idea he had for a computer game with no visuals... great! Douglas's idea. We discussed the possibility of resurrecting a radio HHGG, given that the movie didn't appear to be moving; it had been in the pipeline for nearly twenty years at that point. Douglas found his own rewrites for the rejected radio scripts and sent them to me. I was getting to work about two months later when I suddenly got an email from Sophie, his assistant, saying "Hold on, Disney has just signed a movie deal with us." So the radio show was put on the back burner again. Then Douglas died in 2001, at which time the film seemed to have gone into limbo. I was at the memorial service wondering if the legacy of Hitchhiker's was going to simply fade away and I bumped into Bruce Hyman, the producer of a radio project I'd been working on just a few weeks before, who liked my work. I said, "It's a shame we never did the Tertiary, Quandary and Quintessential phases of HHGG; shall we see if we can?" It turned out he knew Douglas and Jane very well and one thing led to another. So I suppose the two attempts you are thinking of were Douglas going to the BBC in 1993, and me going to Douglas and being called in to raise the subject again in 1997.
TP: So it wasn't really that difficult to obtain permission from the estate of Douglas? I know that it had already been agreed, but situations often change after a death.
DM: No, in fact Jane's been very good to us, very supportive. Of course, it helped that she knew Bruce socially and me through Douglas. She trusts us, and that makes the job a lot easier.
TP: I understand that the first series consists of six parts, and the second and third make up eight together. Is there any reason why two and three are shorter?
DM: It was actually Douglas's idea. We discussed it and originally the Tertiary Phase was going to be eight episodes, but the BBC now want only six and I think it works very well, because it rattles along at a good pace. Douglas was very well aware that 'So Long And Thanks For All The Fish' was a book which would not adapt to radio easily. It's very much Arthur's love story. As for the last book, 'Mostly Harmless', at the time he'd only just written it because he gave me a hardback copy. I think he was still a bit close to it. I've heard people say it isn't up to the "standard of the others", but I totally disagree - I think it's a terrific book and it contains some of his most visionary stuff.
DM: What will probably happen - and I say this before I get into it and find it doesn't work! - is I'll probably try to blend them into each other, rather than run one and then the other. Together they make a good single story. There's all sorts of problems for an adaptor - like Fenchurch, the character Arthur falls in love with, who is literally just killed off at the end of 'Fish'. She was a reflection of a relationship that Douglas had just had in real life. It ended and I think he wanted to move on. But it makes it very difficult to make the story flow in a logical way. Having said that Douglas felt that the last two books were only worth four episodes each; I actually think 'Mostly Harmless' is worth a bit more than that and 'Fish' will fit around it. But I won't predict precisely how I'm going to do it, because I really haven't sat down and put my thinking cap on. I've been too busy finishing the third series.
TP: Is it only the third series which is written and recorded?
DM: We've only recorded the first six episodes which is 'Life, The Universe And Everything'. The original arrangement at the BBC was to broadcast one and then the other; to broadcast fourteen episodes straight off. We'd have had no time to go away and think about what we'd learnt from doing it. It's twenty-five years since the cast last inhabited these characters, and ten years since I first thought about how to approach the stories. It's always better to take breaks, use thinking room. I always find when I'm mixing programs, if I take a day off and then listen back to the mix I can find things to fix, but if I try to finish it all in one go I miss stuff. You have to move away from it, so a break between the two's a good idea.
TP: You seem to work quickly and well under pressure. Have you come up against any unforeseen difficulties up to now?
DM: I think it's more due to the fact radio doesn't pay well enough to spend months finessing stuff. And the way I do it is very labour intensive. I have this ongoing conversation with my wife "Why aren't we making more money, given that you work 24/7?" But that's radio for you. I think that's kind of the deal.
DM: As for difficulties ... not really. I think in this digital age the post-production issues
differ from the two brilliant series Geoffrey Perkins did, in that the raw material doesn't
have to go off to the Radiophonic Workshop to be worked on, and speeches don't
have to be cut together from different sessions... although there have been occasions!
But in order to get the best performances from the actors - and to make it more fun
for them - I did as much as possible as I went along in the studio. Things like Marvin.
We'd actually have him on a loudspeaker on a stick, so that Stephen Moore could be
in his booth when we treat the voice and it would come out the speaker on a stick as
Marvin. It meant he could move around inside with the other actors, which is a terrific
bit of interaction. Actors can play off each other much better then; you get a quicker
and more realistic result. We had a very able effects operator in the studio, Ken
Humphrey, who did a lot of good work, so we tried to get as much work "in-the-
camera" as we could. Having said that, post-production on these will take about two
weeks per episode, because I'm running 32 tracks and they're packed. I'm bouncing down to get stuff in, because this has to be as good as I can do.
TP: How have you solved the problem of the second original radio serial finishing in
a different place to 'The Restaurant At The End Of The Universe' and the TV
DM: Basically, Douglas was the one who determined that he wanted everything to pick up
from prehistoric Earth by placing most of radio series two into the middle of books
one and two, so that he could finish in that setting like series one. He had a sort of re-
ordering when he did the novelisation. It did leave us in a awkward position, except that I noticed in series two the first of the established characters that appears is Zaphod Beeblebrox. He had stolen away on a freighter bound for a planet where the HHGG headquarters is. So you went to the series via Zaphod; it's very much from his point of view. If you follow that line through and say that all of this is in Zaphod's imagination, it's kind of Bobby Ewing in the shower (Dallas). He goes to a virtual reality universe created by this character Zarniwoop, in the Hitchhiker building, so it could be suggested there's no reason to think he ever gets out of that universe. Up to and including the very end of the series where Arthur supposedly steals the Heart of Gold, leaving Zaphod and Ford Prefect with this character the man in the shack, who's kind of like a supreme being; all of this could be in Zaphod's imagination.
The other thing is Trillian never appears in that series at all, and in the third book they
have a falling out, but it's not too clear over what. So a solution seemed pretty obvious
to me that Zaphod thinks he's had this adventure, and she can't remember it at all. All
she knows is he's found wandering the corridors of the Hitchhiker's building in a psychotic state of mind, looking for a free lunch and a stiff drink. It's kind of dismissed. I'm trying to deal with it as quickly as possible for people who feel it's an issue, but the thing is we need to get on with this story. I'm not discounting that second series, because it develops a lot of thoughts about Zaphod ... and about the universe the characters live in. But at the end of the day, this brings the story firmly back to Arthur Dent and Trillian. It's very much a crossroads for all their stories; certain characters don't proceed beyond this point and other characters change direction, particularly Trillian who becomes a lot more forceful. It's a very interesting series because all the strands come back together, and it very much begins to fill in the blanks. For example, we find out who the bowl of petunias is and why it says, "Oh, no. Not again." It's kind of like Peter Jackson's The Lord Of The Rings where he tries to pick out the strands of the story that didn't get resolved. But I didn't have to try too hard, because Douglas was actually closing a lot of loops when he got into the last few episodes.
TP: I sometimes think of you as the Mike Oldfield or John Carpenter of the radio... aside from the voice artistes, pretty much a one-man band. Is this statement accurate?
DM: Well... I think it's the nature of the medium really. It's not strictly true, in the sense that I couldn't actually do my work as well as I do it without Paul Deeley, for example, who has recorded the cast on virtually everything I've done that has been worth anything, and then done the surround mix. So subsequently, when I'm directing I stay in the studio with the cast; I don't sit on my arse at the sound desk with my finger on a talk-back button saying, "Do it again, do it again." I'm in with the cast because I know Paul will make sure it sounds good. He knows what I want. So I can work with the actors and get the performances right. So far the actors tell me it works this way, although they might be being polite! Paul is a very important colleague, because he's the one who makes sure it gets on tape the way I envisioned it. So I'm not a one-man band, and frankly I don't think I'd want to be. It's great to have someone to bounce ideas off, so I try not to be solitary. I think that way madness can lie. I've often thought of doing a bit of writing for its own sake, but I can't help thinking I've got to spend all that time sitting on my own. I'm a gregarious sort of chap; I'd rather be with people.
TP: So how does this differ from Audio Movies, because I remember you saying once before that you were feeling the weight of responsibility for finding work for other people?
DM: That's gone away, because I'm not in charge of the company now. I can concentrate on the creativity. What you lose then is an element of control for the paths of your own destiny. Now, instead of being producer and director, I'm just director, which means there's someone else in the frame. Someone who may not see things the same way as I do. I have to either spend a lot of time selling them what I'm trying to do, or acquiesce to what they want because they're the ones who negotiated the deal. So in that respect it's politically different. Obviously, there are differences of opinion; all I can do is play Hitchhiker through a filter in my brain which is Douglas-shaped; to mentally ask Douglas what he thinks of something and alter it accordingly.
TP: As far as HHGG goes, a lot of people are going to associate certain voices with the story. How many of the original cast didn't return?
DM: Only the ones who are no longer with us. That refers to the original radio cast, of course, because the TV cast was different. So we have the original radio cast, except for Slartibartfast, who is now played by Richard Griffiths, and Eddie the computer is now an American actor living in Ireland called Roger Gregg. In 'Mostly Harmless' there are two Trillians, so I'm hoping we can get in Sandra Dickinson from the TV show to play the second one. It's kind of bringing the family back together. Also Peter Jones is no longer with us as the Book, so this time we have William Franklyn doing the voice.
TP: How did Joanna Lumley come into the mix?
DM: It was kind of like a daft idea. We needed someone to play the Sydney Opera House Woman. I think (co-producer) Helen Chattwell said why not Joanna Lumley. We asked her and she said yes; and when she came in she was terrific. We didn't hire her as a 'name', though. We hired her because she's a damn good actress. She was very funny, and rolled up her sleeves and got stuck in.
TP: Have you got the broadcast dates for all the shows?
DM: Not yet. There's been a couple of pencils, but they've gone away. The Tertiary Phrase
won't see the light of day publicly until all the legal ducks are in a row. I think 'some time in 2004' is my best bet! It's the usual problem of getting something with such a history on the air. With the film happening too, politically it needs a bit of sorting out. It's tricky. Hopefully, it will get a lot of publicity; some people have been waiting for this for a very long time.
TP: How far do you think radio, and radio plays in particular, have progressed since the original HHGG series?
DM: It's hard to say. An awful lot of the time there doesn't seem to be a huge amount of progression. Technically the equipment has changed hugely. Technical problems like avoiding multi-generation tape hiss which Geoffrey had on the first and second series we don't have any more. And editing is easier - AND non-destructive. Douglas would tell me how they tried to edit 24-track tape because they needed to make a cut. You can't cut 24-track tape without creating all sorts of problems. It's a tricky thing to do; getting an enormous drop-out, for instance, and other nuisances which affect tracks you didn't want to touch. All these things are gone now with the advent of digital recording and editing technology.
There are more general issues which never go away; a lot of people still don't see radio drama as needing much in the way of effects, ambient background or voice treatment. So a lot of radio drama still sounds pretty much as you would have heard it thirty years ago. I'm not saying that's a bad thing. But personally, I think the medium should be explored more. The technology is so liberating. Personally, I like to use everything at hand to create an environment you can believe in. As far as I am concerned, two voices talking in silence is television!
TP: How do you think these shows fit in with the originals? Do you see them as a continuation or an update?
DM: It's kind of like an update. Peter Jones actually begins our first episode, and there's a rerun gag that HHGG is being updated. You suddenly have Bill Franklyn break in and there's a tennis effect back and forth as they tell the story so far. Then it settles down to be Bill for the rest of the series. Douglas liked what I was doing on the radio, and always said he wanted HHGG to sound like a rock album in terms of being very richly mixed and produced in layers. I think here as you get into the first episode you realise it's got more layers, because that's the style Douglas wanted it to move in and that fits in with what I do.
TP: You've just completed two years on the Mr Bean animated series. I remember you intimating once before that perhaps you had done as much as you could do on radio, and wanted to move into more TV and film work. HHGG proves that isn't necessarily the case. Would you feel comfortable straddling two or more media formats?
DM: At that time I was very disillusioned with the system. I love the BBC and many people that work there, but they do tend to think in terms of 'radio drama' not 'audio theatre'. The latter implies a more adventurous approach, using whatever technology is available and picking up tips from different disciplines like music technology and film sound design. So I've learnt to pack Agatha Christie mysteries with big FX and lots of action!
DM: In the audiobook world and public sound broadcasting there is a bit of a resistance to being populist. I think they feel it's provided for in the world of film and TV. I don't agree; I think people are much more aware of what sound can do in the context of film; it's a familiar creative language to them and radio can do so much more than film. To combine the technologies of how films sound with radio was my thought. But I also believe in offering popular material as well as the intellectual stuff. There's a huge audience for it and they are not being catered to.
TP: Talking books are still big business, so why not dramatisations of books?
DM: Because they're expensive. Radio 4, which is the prime market, don't do a lot of book
adaptations. They have the Classic Serial and fifteen minutes a day and that's it. And
the book adaptations tend to be of fairly minimalist, heavy on voices, light on production values. If I walked in there with the life and times of Nelson or the entire works of Robert Heinlein with colliding spaceships, I'd get, "Yes... thank you, Dirk!" I guess I'm just not classy enough! But seriously, I do worry very much that the audience profile is getting older, and young people are not switching to speech radio. I do stuff for people who want to be entertained and understand and desire the production values they associate with TV and the cinema. Audio isn't limiting - you can create a world in sound.
TP: Have you ever thought about getting involved in the music aspect of any of your
DM: No, because I'm a drummer (laughs)!
TP: Perhaps you could get a few more musicians in to make a band?
DM: We've always had very good musicians; Wilfredo Acosta, for example. Paul "Wix"
Wickens, who's doing Hitchhiker is Paul McCartney's keyboard player, so he's no
slouch. I'm very happy. Let people who know what they're doing handle it. I can drive
a rock band from the back seat, but don't ask me to be melodic!
TP: On a final HHGG note: With a handful of Douglas Adams biographies emerging, a forthcoming feature film just around the corner, and now 'The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy' being voted the nation's fourth favourite read of all time in a recent BBC poll, your timing couldn't have been better.
DM: Yes, hopefully. That's what we're aiming for ...
TP: Dirk Maggs, thank you very much.
I'd like to thank Dirk Maggs for his time, good humour and for being a true artist. What a gent.
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